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Courthouse use raises questions

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By Jamie Baker-Nantz

Organizations looking for a place to meet in the evening, may no longer be able to use the Grant County Courthouse in Williamstown.

Following a discussion by the fiscal court, the courthouse may not be used after hours by organizations, other than governmental bodies such as the planning commission or traffic school, because it poses a liability risk and costs money.

John Souder says the decision is political, but Grant County officials say it is due to simple economics.

“The fiscal court has offered use of the courthouse during regular business hours to the Tea Party and all other groups as long as the courtroom is not in use and no disruption of legitimate business will occur,” said Grant County Judge-Executive Darrell Link.

Souder, president of the Grant County Tea Party, said last spring he asked Link to use the courtroom for an evening meeting.

Souder said initially Link told him the group could, but when asked again, following the November 2010 election, Souder says he was told the group could not use the courtroom.

Souder contends the decision is politically motivated.

“When I first asked the judge, he indicated to me that it would be available for any citizens as long as it wasn’t for personal use,” Souder said. “When I approached him again in the fall, he said he didn’t believe he’d let us use it because the Tea Party didn’t support him in the election.”

Link said denial of use of the courtroom is not political.

“Denial of the tea party’s request of using the courtroom after hours has nothing to do with the support of my candidacy but rather is related to the fiscal court’s desire to be fair and reasonable to those requesting access while also protecting the public’s best interest and limiting liability to the taxpayers,” Link said.

Souder said he told Link that the Grant County Tea Party was “non-partisan” and didn’t support any candidate, which is not necessarily the case for every tea party group, but was true for the local group.

“We told Steve Wood (Link’s opponent) the same thing,” Souder said. “I don’t want to stir up a hornet’s nest, but I want the right thing to be done.”

Souder was so upset about his conversation with Link that he sent him a letter requesting use of the courthouse for a Grant County Tea Party meeting.

Link said he forwarded the letter to County Attorney Joe Taylor.

 “I stand behind what’s in my letter 200 percent and I’ll take a polygraph test in a New York minute that it’s all true,” Souder said.

Taylor responded in a letter dated Jan. 11.

Not happy with Taylor’s response, Souder attended Monday night’s fiscal court meeting and reiterated his desire to use the courthouse for a meeting of the Grant County Tea Party.

He told the fiscal court he was told by Link he could use the courtroom for a meeting, but later was told he couldn’t. He offered to pay for any costs associated with keeping the courthouse open for an evening meeting when the majority of  tea party members would be able to attend.

Taylor said if his letter to Souder wasn’t satisfactory, the court could consider an ordinance outlining use of the courtroom. He suggested a public meeting for additional input.

Brian Linder, magistrate in the second district, said Souder’s request to use the courthouse will prompt the court to develop a policy regarding its use.

“I don’t think it should be used at taxpayer’s expense, but I don’t have a problem if groups want to use it and they want to pay for it. The court needs to say here’s the fee or adopt an ordinance that the facility not be used after hours for non-governmental meetings,” Linder said.

Dick Austin, magistrate of the 1st district, suggested the group meet at the Williamstown Senior Citizens Center.

“We’re not trying to single any group out, “Austin said. “It’s never been an issue before but we want to be sure we’re fair and we’ve got everything covered.  We want the building and facilities to be used but also to protect them.”

EXCERPTS FROM THE LETTERS:

Souder says:
“On Nov. 4, 2010, you were contacted, by me, via telephone on behalf of the Grant County Tea Party and requested use of the Grant County Courthouse (old courtroom) for a future meeting of the organization. During that conversation, you indicated that due to the political positions of the Tea Party they would never be permitted to use the old courthouse. Needless to say, I was shocked that a public official would verbalize his intention to discriminate against a group expressly due to their political beliefs. I did not expect this response since you had in previous months said we could use it anytime,” Souder wrote in his letter to Link.

Taylor says:
“The first question that arose was whether the fiscal court should be using taxpayer resources to subsidize private groups by providing an after-hours meeting place. Potentially, after-hours meetings by non-governmental groups would require the county to assign resources and risk potential liability. For example, the county may have to pay a county employee to unlock the building and require them to either remain at the courthouse, for the duration of the meeting, or return to make sure that everyone had gone and lock up afterwards. Additional time and expense could be incurred for snow removal, and salting the sidewalks, on a weekend, that would have otherwise been handled, without overtime, on Monday. Although most groups, like the Tea Party, would behave themselves, others may not, so unrestricted after hours access to all private groups could lead to disruption, damage and a potential increase in liability insurance. Because of the above, the Grant County Fiscal Court has decided to restrict all future after-hours use of the courthouse to government related functions such as fiscal court meeting, planning and zoning meetings, traffic school, etc,” Taylor wrote in his response.